To Read or to Be Read

When I was a kid, I used to go to the library a lot… and read books. Before reading them, I would need to find them. For those of you unfamiliar with this process: This was the prototype for most search engines (back then, people studying this process went to “library schools”, graduate programs for “information science” — and the field specifically focused on what is today referred to “search”, back then it was called “information retrieval”).

But reading is not really something “for specialists only”. Before graduating high school, regular folks also had to learn about publishing. For example: They needed to know that books have authors, that they were published by publishing companies, and so on.

Online, titles, authors and publishing houses became domain names. There are also numbers which refer to computers — perhaps this is roughly equivalent to the way people would refer to specific shelves where specific books were stored (this system of naming shelves, which was used in the earliest libraries, would later give way to so-called “call-numbers”, a system whereby a book was given a specific sequential number where it could be found). The biggest difference between traditional libraries and the Internet is probably the fact that online, the cataloging and indexing systems are integrated into the same system as the writing that they catalog / index. Although professional abstracting and indexing services also published such volumes (which looked very much like “regular” books), and these books were usually also given call numbers, putting them on par with the more ordinary literature, the librarian was the person who made this decision… and the librarian was the person ultimately responsible for maintaining the catalog (and also for choosing what would be included in the library’s collection).

I guess only quite novice users would assume that if something was not in the library (and/or the library’s catalogs) that it would not exist.

Contrast that with today — where there is now an entire generation of kids who seem to believe that if something cannot be found in Google, that it doesn’t exist.

Even though the rate of illiteracy today is quite astounding already, I now observe also that in recent years an entirely new trend is catching on. People are becoming ever less concerned with reading or writing or behaving as functionally literate persons. Instead: They are becoming more obsessed with being read… — meaning that someone (or some company) is able to trace their moves. Whereas it is becoming ever more rare for people the read or write anything resembling written texts (and/or “literature”), it is becoming ever more commonplace for people to clutch on to gadgets which track everything such quantified fetishists seem to place such a high value on. The typical quantified fetishist will feel much the same way about their gadget fetish as a democratic idealist might view the sanctity of the voting booth.

In this milieu, there seems to also be a widespread belief that the companies collecting this data will share it publicly out of the warmness of their hearts.

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WANTED: Is Written Language DEAD OR ALIVE?

We are constantly altering the forms we have inherited from previous generations, and these changes are signs of life and vitality. Indeed: The things that don’t change, the forms that rigidify, come to look to us like death — and we destroy them.

Robert Greene (“48 Laws of Power”)

One of the sayings I find particularly enticing is the notion that “Written language is dead”. It appeals to our experiences of printed materials, tomes that appear as tombstones of bygone ideas. Yet today, this dogma itself is no longer valid.

Today, written language exists in the present. Written language lives and breathes according to the whims of an invisible hand that sweeps our attention from hither to thither. “Bells and whistles” give way to “ringtones”, and “ringtones” also succumb to other newfangled applications of fashion.

More and more writing is becoming less and less etched in stone, it increasingly billows among flyers scattered by the winds of change, becomes evermore formless, ephemeral and transient. Fixed data points give way to fluid data streams.

There is no need for remorse or backwards oriented attachment to the dead tomes of yesteryear or the innumerable generations dating back to the ancient past. We are not amoeba. We are, here and now, living in the present… — and constantly changing in order to better adapt to the future.

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The Theory of Competition vs. Pricing in a Seller’s Market

In a recent episode of “This Week in Startups” (TWiSt), Jason Calacanis and Molly Wood discussed Google’s business model (see, e.g. “The #Future of #Retard #Media in 4:20″ [ย http://nooblogs.com/activity/p/5321/ ]).

One aspect of where traditional economics does not seem very good at dealing with the online economy is in the pricing of information and/or informative content. Please don’t try to nail down these concepts as referring to something very specific, because this is actually more of a sweeping generalization. One of the many ways this generalization has manifested in reality is via so-called “auction” markets (and/or “auction pricing” models).

You might think that over many centuries of stock market trading there might be more knowledge about how such markets work, but my hunch is that a big part of the reason why there isn’t much knowledge about this is that these markets were very closed off (ironically, in economics one of the defining characteristics of a market is infinitesimally small — “low” — barriers to entry). Traditional stock markets are anything but that!

In the example cited above (go ahead and follow the link / watch the video segment, so that you can better understand what I am referring to), Jason mentions the string “used iphone”. Naive users of such “retard media” platforms believe the results for such a search display a plethora of competing sellers. In fact — as Jason noted — pretty much the entire page is plastered with offers from Google advertising partners. In other words: Google has essentially become what it replaced only about 10 years ago: the “yellow pages”. Such a page has no magic algorithm brought to you by a web of links behind it — it is 100% “paid media”.

Normally, competition refers to a market in which an individual buyer can peruse offers from a wide variety of competing sellers — e.g. a beverage aisle with dozens or even hundreds of different kinds of beverages.

In contrast, Google faces a very different situation. It is widely seen as a monopolist, owning such vast market share that it is in a position where it could virtually dictate the market price. Its marketing department tells the vast population of hungry buyers that the company has developed sophisticated algorithms for something like “fair pricing” is such auctions… — apparently the auctioneer is a very trustworthy seller and would never steal anyone’s shirt.

Over the past several years, I have been noticing that Google’s marketplace has become increasingly populated by novices — more well versed users have increasingly migrated to other platforms for specific queries in which they have already acquired some expertise. This development is quite probably one of the main reasons why a company like Amazon would acquire the domain name “diapers.com”. I am often reminded of a television ad where the voice-over said (of a clothing retailer’s offers): “an educated consumer is our best customer“.

Perhaps one of the most ironic aspects of the technological revolution we are currently experiencing is that the success and failure of any undertaking has much more to do with the limitations of “human technology” than with semiconductors, big data, etc. The very human psychology and the very human behavior of human actors seem to be often overlooked to the peril of the short-sighted. As Molly Wood aptly agreed (with Jason): “The core business is going to die”.

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Language, the Network Effect and ICT — a Short Introduction, Here and Now

I believe there is a common misunderstanding which clouds many people’s (lack of) understanding with respect to the “network effect”. This is, roughly: The difference between knowing a language and using a language. If you call me on the telephone and say “hello”, then it helps both of us if we agree on the meaning of that greeting. This has nothing to with how often you say “hello” and/or how many thousands or millions of people might say “hello”.

This is, perhaps, one of the main reasons why I stopped using twitter many years ago, and also why I stopped using Facebook more recently. If millions or even billions of people scream unintelligible noise and/or nonsense into a channel, then that channel breaks down due to a negative network effect.

Let me try to expand my explanation of this phenomenon with the help of an example. Everyone who understands basic English knows what the words “here” and “now” mean. However, probably only a quite small number of people will know what “deixis” refers to. This has nothing to do with actually using these words, but rather different levels of literacy normally correspond to different network effects.

This is the case whether people use telephones or computers, a pencil and paper or simply their own vocal apparatus. The common fallacy of thinking there might be a universally positive network effect from networked “information and communications technology” backfired bigtime when during a recent trip to the United States I became aware of how widespread the spam “robocaller” problem has become there.

The herd mentality of a huge mob does not deserve to be trusted any more than the careful analysis of an individual researcher. Indeed: The brute force of many mindless machines is less valuable (not more valuable) than the prospect of splendid isolation from the rampant rage of a wild, errant and fickle crowd of murmuring maniacs.

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The individualist manifesto vs. The anti-revolutionary social contract

To think or not to think — no. To write or not to write… — no. To create or not to create… — that’s wrong, too. I can come up with many ideas, but where do they come from — out of thin air?

There are some who often say: “You should live your own life, you should create your own narrative.” They are also wrong — it is not possible to invent myself or my story as being independent of the world around me. To do so would require me to step outside of any language community, to speak in something we might hypothetically call “my own language”. Yet the sun, the moon and stars, all plants and animals, the air we breathe, the water we drink, our entire lives are a matter of co-existence… we share a space with other objects and beings, and they are not only a part of our lives, they are a part of our being, and they also co-create the language we speak. We really cannot speak of anything which doesn’t exist (note that our imagination does exist), the existence of things leads us to observe them, think about them, interact with them, and also express our ideas about them using different kinds of language. We are no more free in our use of language than we are free to squint or not to squint when we look at a bright light — our squinting expresses something meaningful.

Yet there are nonetheless people who will preach individualism, self-discovery, self-actualization, self-fulfillment,… — a whole self-centered philosophy. A philosophy that is bogus and that simply denies obvious laws of nature.

Luckily, you are reading these words. You are trying to understand what I am trying to say — we are in this together. Night and day, the sun and the stars, all of life and death are also with us. We are all here together. The notion that we could be apart and isolated is also here, but it is ridiculous. ๐Ÿ˜‰

That said, you do not need to agree with me. Neither do the Sun or other stars. Nor does William Shakespeare. They need not speak the same language, but they might.

I can try to convince you that my ideas are reasonable, but you are nonetheless free to think about different ideas. Perhaps you might like to think of ideas you would rather call “clouds”. I might not understand what you mean, precisely. Whatever you call “clouds” might not care at all what you think of them. Everyone is free to think as they like, but at the same time there is this curious feeling that we might be able to understand each other every now and then.

Mutual understanding feels good. It feels a whole lot better than any notion of individualism. It feels so great, that we spend most of our days expressing ideas to each other that we hope will increase this understanding.

We make agreements on a daily basis. We will call some things blue, other things green. We will restrict our use of terms like “ow” or “ouch” to mutually agreed upon contexts… — and likewise with almost everything else. We won’t smile when we’re unhappy (unless, perhaps, we are “acting” or “pretending”).

Why would anyone suggest that you might be happy if you would write your “own” narrative? They would be suggesting that you should try to do something which is impossible. ๐Ÿ˜

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